Is Michigan the Big Ten's Surprise Team for 2011?

Will the combination of Brady Hoke and Denard Robinson lead Michigan back to a Big Ten title?

Will the combination of Brady Hoke and Denard Robinson lead Michigan back to a Big Ten title?

By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

Defining what is a surprise team is no easy task. Over the next couple of weeks, Athlon will take a look at a team from each of the BCS leagues that could be a surprise contender in their conference. Each of the candidates to surprise will be ranked fifth or worse in Athlon’s 2011 predictions.

After three years of underachieving with Rich Rodriguez, Brady Hoke was hired to get the program going back in the right direction. The Wolverines face a tough battle in the Legends Division, with Nebraska, Michigan State, Iowa and Northwestern being realistic top 25 teams at some point during the 2011 season. 

Is Michigan the surprise team in the Big Ten Legends Division? Here are four reasons to like and four to doubt the Wolverines in 2011.

Reasons the Wolverines will surprise:

1. Rich Rodriguez just wasn’t the right fit at Michigan. Although the Wolverines improved their win total in the last two years after a disastrous 2008 campaign, it was time for change in Ann Arbor. Brady Hoke wasn’t a big name, but seems to be the perfect fit. Hoke didn’t play college ball at Michigan, but coached from 1995 to 2002 as an assistant and knows the culture and the expectations for the Wolverines. Hoke is bringing in a great recruiting class for 2012 and all signs point to this being a home-run hire for athletic director Dave Brandon. All of the drama surrounding Rodriguez is gone, which should only help the team in 2011.

2. If Denard Robinson can stay healthy, the Michigan offense should be deadly. The Wolverines led the Big Ten in total offense and finished third in scoring. New coordinator Al Borges won’t stick with the same scheme used last year, but Robinson will remain the center of the offense. Robinson likely won’t tally 256 carries, but rushing for 1,000 yards again is reasonable. Keeping Robinson healthy is a top priority for Michigan and with one of the Big Ten’s top receiving groups, the junior quarterback won’t have to carry the offense as much with his legs.

3. One of the ways to limit Robinson’s workload will be to establish the running backs as a consistent threat this year. There’s no shortage of possible contenders, including sophomore Stephen Hopkins, junior Vincent Smith and true freshmen Thomas Rawls and Justice Hayes. Smith led all running backs with 601 yards last year, but is probably best suited for a change of pace role. Hopkins averaged 4.1 yards per touch on 37 carries last season. If the Wolverines can establish a traditional rushing attack, they will also eat up the clock, which should help keep the defense off the field.

4. Hoke has a defensive background, but hiring Greg Mattison to coordinate the defense should pay immediate dividends. The Wolverines were atrocious on defense last season, finishing last in the Big Ten in scoring, total and pass defense. Although the talent level on defense isn’t quite what it was in the past, there’s no excuse for Michigan to be that bad. Seven starters return on defense and the line could be one of the most-improved groups in the conference. If the line can generate a better pass rush on the quarterback, some of the pressure on the secondary will be eased. The defensive backfield also gets a boost from the return of cornerback Troy Woolfolk, who missed all of last season with an injury. Mattison was a solid hire with a proven track record of getting results. It’s only a matter of time before the defense is better.

Reasons to doubt the Wolverines will surprise:

1. Although the Wolverines have some momentum with Brady Hoke taking over and the return of Denard Robinson, the schedule didn’t do them any favors. Non-conference matchups against Notre Dame and San Diego State (Hoke’s former team) won’t be easy. Michigan also catches Northwestern, Michigan State, Iowa and Illinois on the road – all swing games. Hosting Nebraska and Ohio State in November helps, but having four swing games on the road is a challenge.

2. Although the defense should be improved, how much of a difference can Mattison and Hoke make in one year? Has the talent really dropped off that much? The defensive line should be improved, but there’s really no standouts in the linebacking corps and the secondary will be an issue once again. Expect the Wolverines to show improvement, but it may be too much to ask of Mattison and Hoke to turn this defense into an elite group in just one offseason.

3. Al Borges wants to reduce the wear and tear on quarterback Denard Robinson, but even if the junior only carries the ball 175-200 times, it’s still a lot of touches. When healthy, Robinson was one of the top players in college football last season. Transitioning from a spread to more of a pro-style attack won’t be easy, but Robinson should continue to put up big numbers through the air. Considering how successful Robinson is when he takes off with his legs, it will be difficult to keep him in the pocket all year. However, Borges has to find a way to reduce the amount of hits on Robinson, without sacrificing much offensive production. If Robinson gets hurt or struggles to adapt to the new offense, the Wolverines will be in big trouble.

4. Field goals were an absolute disaster last season and the spring didn’t provide many answers. Brendan Gibbons and Seth Broekhuizen combined to hit 4 of 14 attempts last year, with 37 yards being the longest successful field goal. Incoming freshman Matt Wile will have every opportunity to win the job this fall and if he does not takeover the starting job, this will be another sore spot for Michigan in 2011. Considering the Wolverines could be locked into several close games within the conference, not having a reliable field goal kicker could come back to haunt them.

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<p> Nebraska looks to be the clear favorite in the Big Ten Legends Division. Even with a new coach, don't count out Michigan from making a run at the division title.</p>

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